The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History by James Hall - review by Giles Waterfield

Giles Waterfield

How Do I Look?

The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History


Thames & Hudson 288pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

The self-portrait has been a favourite theme for art historians and the public for many years – even longer, according to the author of this stimulating book, than has generally been supposed. James Hall’s bibliography cites four books on the subject published in English alone since 2000, along with a considerable supporting literature. Not only have certain artists – most notably Rembrandt and Van Gogh – repeatedly studied their own appearance or used their own image as inspiration for artistic exploration, but the genre has attracted such major collecting enterprises as the gallery of self-portraits in the Vasari Corridor linking the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence: begun in 1664, it now holds over 1,600 images from the 14th century to the present. The self-portrait, after all, gives the viewer the impression that one is encountering the artist in person and gaining an understanding not only of their personality but often also of their working methods. In a society that has long been intrigued by artists’ characters and working methods, the self-portrait appears to offer an unparalleled insight into their private being. As Hall discusses with reference to Dürer, some portraits have a secret character, offering a coded image that appears to point to the sitter’s innermost being. Only in the past two centuries has the self-portrait been rivalled by that alternative form of depiction of the self, the artist’s studio or house (also discussed in this book), preserved by the individual or by their family or admirers as a personal shrine and a testament to, variously, their wealth, their grandeur, their modesty, their erudition or their aesthetic sensibility.

Hall writes with energetic freshness and has read deeply in pursuit of his subject. He is a keen debunker of received ideas, such as the belief that the self-portrait was the product of Renaissance humanism and a new interest in individuals and respect for the artist’s achievements. While he devotes

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